Thursday, June 16, 2011

Everywhere a Sign

So, I don't know if they play the song on the radio more often in the summer than at other times of the year, but it just seems that whenever the weather warms up I start to hear the song, "Signs" which was originally performed by the Five Man Electrical Band in 1970, and written by band member Les Emmerson.  It really is one of the great protest songs of the 60s (some of you may not know that "the 60s" extended into the first few years of the 70s, and didn't quite get started until 1962), it always gets me in a mood to shout "right on!" (well, maybe not exactly, but something like that), but it also has an underlying spiritual and religious quality that I find quite endearing. 

So I checked over on YouTube and it turns out there's a plethora of videos set to the song.  It seems that folks just can't resist the temptation to create a montage of signs to go along with the tune.  Here's one that seems to be particularly popular, and uses the longer version of the song (the difference being a short instrumental intro before the singing starts):

And here are the lyrics:

And the sign said "Long-haired freaky people need not apply"
So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why
He said "You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you'll do"
So I took off my hat, I said "Imagine that. Huh! Me workin' for you!"

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?

And the sign said anybody caught trespassin' would be shot on sight
So I jumped on the fence and-a yelled at the house, "Hey! What gives you the right?"
"To put up a fence to keep me out or to keep mother nature in"
"If God was here he'd tell you to your face, Man, you're some kinda sinner"

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?

Now, hey you, mister, can't you read?
You've got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat
You can't even watch, no you can't eat
You ain't supposed to be here
The sign said you got to have a membership card to get inside

And the sign said, "Everybody welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray"
But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all, I didn't have a penny to pay
So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign
I said, "Thank you, Lord, for thinkin' 'bout me. I'm alive and doin' fine."

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?

Now, if you are at all into semiotics, aka semiology, you might well regard this song as an anthem celebrating that field.  After all, semiotics was defined as the "science of signs" and alternatively as the study of signs, and the key term of sign refers to anything that has meaning beyond itself, anything that has significance, is significant, anything that signifies.   

The term sign in semiotics is used in much the same way that the term symbol has been used in other approaches, although in semiotics, symbol is a subset of sign, along with icon (i.e., visual images), and index (i.e., natural objects like tracks left by an animal, smoke as an indication of fire, yellow skin as a symptom of jaundice, the appearance of storm clouds "announcing" that it's about to rain, or a dog growling as a warning that it will attack if its space is violated).  In other fields, symbol may be similarly differentiated and limited to digital codes, or simply contrasted to signals (the equivalent of the index in semiotics), or may be used in as broad a manner as semioticians use sign (as Susanne K. Langer does, for example).

Semiotics and semiology share a common root with semantics, the root sem referring to meaning, and I should note that there is also some connection to general semantics:  Korzybski considered Charles Saunders Peirce, the 19th century pragmatist philosopher and founder of semiotics, to have developed his own version of a non-Aristotelian approach.  In general semantics, the term symbol is used more commonly than sign, Korzybski followed Pavlov in distinguishing between symbol reactions and signal reactions, combining them under the heading of semantic reactions.  Of course, his key term was abstracting, rather than symbol or meaning, but I digress.

So, anyway, I don't think it would come as any surprise that some hip semioticians have used the line, "sign, sign, everywhere a sign" in their publications on semiotics.  I don't have any specific quotations handy, but I know I've seen it used a number of times.  I'm fairly certain the prolific communication scholar Arthur Asa Berger was one of the scholars who did so.  

But I don't want to talk semiotics here.  Instead, I want to bring in some media ecology.  But first, let's take a break and check out another version of the song,   In 1990 a band called Tesla (note the electricity connection, and pardon the pun) did a live acoustic version of the song that became a big hit, and all in all, I think they did a very good job of it, albeit with a few minor, profane adjustments to the lyrics:

So now, where was I?  Oh yes, In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong states, in taking issue with Jacques Derrida's rather absurd claim that writing preceded speaking, that "words are not signs."  This has to be understood as something more than a rejection of semiotics, however.  Ong reminds us that words are primarily utterances, speech, and therefore sounds, acoustic phenomena.  We call the written word words, but in reality writing is a secondary symbol system, the letters or characters standing for sounds, in the case of the alphabet or syllabic writing, for sounds that we put together to form words, in the case of logographic writing (e.g., Chinese ideograms) for the sounds of a word in its entirety.

So, Ong doesn't want us to confuse the written representation of a word with the genuine word itself as a speech-act (whether actually occurring, or in potential).  So, why does that make the term sign problematic, given its relatively abstract definition, which can be applied to anything we perceive as meaningful in some way?  The problem lies not in the definition, but the etymology of the word, which is decidedly visual, referring to a mark, a token, or more basically, a gesture, a pointing out.  Even the ways in which we explain the process of signfication tends to invoke visual terms, that a sign stands for something else, points to something else, re-presents something else.  Signs are seen, not heard, are shown, discerned, revealed, read.  They can be found in the clouds, the flight of birds, in tea leaves, in the stars and planets, in the entrails of a sacrificial lamb, in the palm of your hand.

And of course, signs are a medium for the public display of written messages.  That's what the song is all about.  The lyrics repeat the phrase, "the sign said" and sure, that's how we talk about it, but technically, signs do not say anything, they don't speak (leaving out new kinds of electronic screens), they display, and we read them.  Technically, yes, but there's a more important point to be made here.

The song protests the ubiquitous nature of signage--everywhere a sign.  And while there's a quick nod to their visual pollution of the natural environment, which relates back to First Lady Jackie Kennedy's Keep America Beautiful campaign, and the particular complaint against the postwar proliferation of billboard advertising, the main issue is one of control.  Signs are used to control behavior, telling us what we have to do and what we are not allowed to do--do this, don't do that.  Through the use of the written word, signs convey authority, so that beyond someone telling you what to do, they point to the sign for support, legitimacy, and power--can't you read the sign? 

So, the point is that in a literate culture, the practice arises of putting up signs that not only identify things and relate information, but also that command.  And this practice has been especially relied upon in the west, and in the modern, typographic era, where increasing literacy rates increased the efficacy of written signage.  What we have done, in effect, has been to provide an overlay of the written word onto the natural environment, and more to the point, onto the artificial environment of roads and buildings that we have created for ourselves.
Go for a drive and signs are essential.  Walk down a street and see how many signs surround us.  And sure, advertising has become a big part of it, but it's also signs that name each street and that name or at least number each house and building.  One of the problems our soldiers faced in Iraq, in mounting counterinsurgency efforts, is that many of the roads there had no name, and the houses had no number.  How then, to find anything, or anyone?  

And back in 1945, when we occupied Japan, we ran into a different kind of problem, as they were more of a literate society, but one based on the Japanese syllabary and Chinese ideograms rather than the alphabet.   So, in Japan, they named or numbered the blocks, not the streets, and they numbered houses not in linear, spatial order, but in the order that they were built, so the oldest house would be number 1, for example, and the next one built would be number 2, and so on.  Edward T. Hall wrote about some of these intercultural differences regarding the human use of space, which he termed proxemics, in his classic work, The Hidden Dimension.

Signs are semiotic, and semantic, in that they tell us what things mean.  That's why we look at the little sign next to the painting in the art museum, to give us some meaning, some context, some idea of what the image is about.  Even just knowing the identify of the painter helps to explain the painting to us, and before there was the sign in the museum, there was, dating back to the Renaissance, the artist's signature.

So, we have overwritten our world by way of signs, turning it into a book.  Nature was once held to be a book, a complementary volume to scripture, and from this idea came modern science.  McLuhan made the point that the medieval grammarians (grammar being the ancient/medieval study of language and literature, of meaning and interpretation, which would relate to general semantics and media ecology) pioneered this approach to studying both God's word and God's works.  

But we weren't satisfied with just seeing the world as a book to be read, we wound up filling it with our own marginalia. 

So, this situation makes perfect sense to members of a typographic culture.  But for those born into the new electronic culture that television had given rise to, the ubiquity of signs suddenly shifts from background, routine and environmental, to the foreground of consciousness.  Their function, to control and coordinate, are likewise make visible and obvious, and are seen as oppressive.  The electronic kids of the postwar baby boom chafed at the restrictions of the posted sign, their static nature, all status quo, put into sharp relief against the dynamism of electronic media.  So this generation rose up in rebellion against many things, including signs.

It is therefore no accident that the song begins, seemingly in medias res, with the line:  And the sign said "Long-haired freaky people need not apply" (starting the sentence with "And" has a biblical resonance to it, relating to an ancient Hebrew poetic tradition, and you may have noticed that I begin sentences this way quite often).  It is an acknowledgement of the generation gap that existed at that time, a gap much wider than any that exists between baby boomer parents and their offspring.  Throughout the song, signs are hostile to hippies, to the young, and generally, to people who are trying to live freely, openly, and ethically.  Signs divide and conquer, they keep you out and support unfair claims of property rights.  Perhaps most damning of all,

Signs are sins!

Now that's heavy!  Well, I have more to say about this, but maybe we need to take another break.  And since I brought up the first line of the lyrics, I think it worth including on this post that a fellow called Fatboy Slim (real name Norman Cook) created an electronic dance piece called "Long Haired Freaky People" drawing on the first line of "Signs" which certainly is an homage of sorts:

And before continuing on, let me also mention that I thought that Sarah Brimley's video set to Fatboy Slim recording was quite impressive:

Now, let me see, ok, yeah, so the song ends with the narrator turning the tables:  So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign.  Now holding aside the question of whether his writing a note and sticking into the collection plate can be called a sign or not, the important point is the shift from signs as a read-only mode of communication to a read-write mode, and this of course presages the further evolution of electronic culture from television to new media, which are also referred to, quite aptly in this instance, as participatory media.  The counterculture ethic that this song expresses is the yearning for participation, and the new electronic media have made that possible.

So now here we are over four decades after "Signs" was released, and we are now in the process of writing over our environment once again, only this time electronically.  For one, we are seeing more and more electronic signs, which are dynamic (sometimes causing problematic distractions for drivers) and could and will potentially provide messages tailored to the individual passerby.  Through our mobile devices, we also are making it possible to access information about places, using GPS tracking to create a virtual electronic environment to overlay the physical place, using the built-in camera to recognize places and provide information about them, and using QR codes posted in the environment to link to material online.

We are continually remaking our environments, and typically not by building from scratch, but by overlaying the new on top of the old.  So now, we are adding to the ubiquity of signs, ubiquitous computing, and in doing so, maybe the written signs will become less necessary, and the environment will be better off, at least visually, for it.

So, we have gone from the age of signs, to the age of networks. And I think that's an improvement over all, but there still may be a new protest song in there, somewhere, sometime.

Oh, and by the way, if you want to hear a live version from the original Five Man Electrical Band, you can catch it towards the end of a clip from a 2004 television appearance, but you have to watch it over on YouTube, as embedding is disabled for this one:  Five Man Electrical Band live on Mike Bullard Show (and yes, they've aged, but still retain that spirit of rebellion). 

And that's all for now, so this is Lance Strate, signing off...


Nick Leshi said...

Great song, great videos, and great essay.

Lance Strate said...

Thanks, Nick!